Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is a blood clot that forms inside a vein, usually deep within your leg. As many as 900,000 Americans a year get one, and up to 100,000 die because of it. Part of the clot can break, travel through your bloodstream, get stuck in your lungs and block blood flow, thus causing organ damage or death.
Deep Vein Thrombosis: Symptoms
A common symptom of DVT is a leg swollen below the knee. You may have redness and tenderness or pain in the area of the clot.
But you won’t always have these. About half of people with DVT get no warning signs.
Deep Vein Thrombosis: Pulmonary Embolism
This is a clot that moves into your lungs and blocks the blood supply. It can cause trouble breathing, low blood pressure, fainting, a faster heart rate, chest pain, and coughing up blood. If you have any of these, call 911 and get medical care right away.
Deep Vein Thrombosis: Causes
Anything that damages the inner lining of a vein may cause DVT, such as surgery, an injury, or your immune system. If your blood is thick or flows slowly, it’s more likely to form a clot, especially in a vein that’s already damaged. People who have certain genetic disorders or more estrogen in their system are more likely to have blood clots, too.
Deep Vein Thrombosis: Who Is At High Risk?
High risk people are those who:
- Have cancer
- Have had surgery
- Are on extended bed rest
- Are older
- Are overweight or obese
- Sit for long times, like on a long airplane flight
Deep Vein Thrombosis: Pregnancy
Women are more likely to develop DVT during pregnancy and in the 4 to 6 weeks after giving birth. That’s when they have higher levels of estrogen, which may make blood clot more easily. The pressure of their expanding uterus can slow blood flow in the veins as well. Certain blood disorders can boost their chances of having DVT even more.
Deep Vein Thrombosis: Long Journeys
Travel to new and faraway places can be exciting! Squishing into a coach seat for a long international flight is not. Studies show long-distance travel, defined as a trip that lasts more than 4 hours, doubles the chance of developing DVT. It doesn’t matter if you go by air, bus, train, or car. When you’re in a cramped seat and don’t move around, your blood flow slows.
When traveling will keep you in your seat for more than 4 hours, don’t wear tight clothing, and drink plenty of water. Get up and walk around at least every couple of hours. If you have to stay in your seat, stretch and move your legs. Try clenching and releasing your calves and thighs, or lifting and lowering your heels with your toes on the floor.
Deep Vein Thrombosis: Diagnosis
An ultrasound is the most common way to confirm you have it. The test uses sound waves to “see” the blood flow and reveal a clot. You might also need other tests, such as a blood test called a d-dimer.
Deep Vein Thrombosis: Blood Thinners
Drugs called anticoagulants are the most common way to treat DVT. Although they’re known as blood thinners, they don’t really thin your blood. They make it less “sticky” to prevent new blood clots from forming. They can’t break up a clot you already have, but they will give your body time to dissolve one on its own. You take these medications in a pill or by needle.
If you can’t take blood thinners or they aren’t working, your doctor may recommend putting a filter into your biggest vein, called the vena cava. This filter catches breakaway clots and stops them from getting into your lungs and heart. It won’t stop new clots from forming or cure DVT, but it can help stop a dangerous pulmonary embolism.
Medications that dissolve blood clots are called thrombolytics. They can cause sudden, severe bleeding, so doctors use them only in emergencies; to dissolve a life-threatening blood clot in your lung. You get thrombolytics by IV in a hospital.
Deep Vein Thrombosis: Compression Stockings
These special socks put gentle pressure on your legs to keep your blood moving. They help keep clots from forming as well as keep swelling down and relieve pain where a clot has formed. You can get compression stockings over the counter, but your doctor will need to write a prescription for ones with more pressure. Wear them even when you’re at home.
Deep Vein Thrombosis: Exercise
Use your muscles to get blood flowing. Work your lower leg muscles especially. When you’re not active, at your desk, for example, go ahead and take breaks to stretch your legs. Stand up. Step away.
Regular exercise also helps keep you at a healthy weight, and that lowers your odds of having DVT.